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What is Parmesan Cheese?

Mary McMahon
By
Updated May 16, 2024
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Parmesan cheese is an iconic hard cheese originally from Italy that is widely used and produced all over the world. Within Europe, it is a protected cheese, meaning that only those made in a certain way in a certain area of Italy can be labeled as Parmesan. Outside of Europe, many generic cheeses use the name. The distinctively salty, slightly granular cheese has many uses in Italian cuisine, such as a topping for pastas and pizzas and as a crucial ingredient in some sauces.

In most of Europe, Parmesan cheese is referred to by its Italian name: Parmigiano-Reggiano, a reference to the regions in which the cheese is produced. To bear the Parmigiano label, the cheese must be made from cow's milk between May and November in Modena, Parma, Reggio Emilia, or parts of Bologna and Mantova. The cheese is traditionally made by mixing whole morning milk with skimmed milk from the previous evening. The milk is heated and mixed with rennet to form curds, which are pressed in a cheese mold. True Parmesan is molded with a stencil, indicating where and when it was made. The cheese is soaked in a brine bath and then aged for a minimum of two years before being graded for sale.

Another well known export of the region is Parma ham. The pigs are often fed the discarded whey from the cheese manufacturing process, and this is said to create a distinct flavor in the meat. The curing process for true Parma ham is also protected, along with many other regional Italian foods. Some import stores specialize in importing protected Italian foods for consumers outside of Europe who would like to be assured the genuine article.

True Parmesan cheese is a hard yellowish cheese that breaks in a sliver-like pattern. The dense cheese has large grains in it that can easily be seen with the naked eye. When examining a wedge of cheese, the marks from the Parmigiano-Reggiano stencil will also be able to be seen, and cooks should be able to see which dairy made the cheese and when. A reputable importer will cut a sliver for consumers to taste before packaging the cheese for sale, and may offer tastes of several wheels so that the best flavor can be identified.

Grocery stores all over the world also carry cheese made in the Parmesan style outside of Italy. Some of these cheeses rival true Parmigiano-Reggiano for flavor and texture, while others are of a somewhat lesser quality. If possible, cooks should buy this cheese in a whole wedge, rather than pre-grated, as the wedge will hold flavor and texture better, and the cheese will not be as dry when it is used.

DelightedCooking is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a DelightedCooking researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By tigers88 — On Dec 02, 2012
I love Parmesan cheese but I can't stand the cheap stuff. It is like the difference between a really good slice of sharp cheddar cheese and a slice of processed American cheese. Good rule of thumb -- if it comes as powder it is probably not worth eating. Would you buy a powdered cheddar?
By BAU79 — On Dec 01, 2012

I love to make a simple pasta dish with whatever pasta I have in the cupboard and this really simple pepper, Parmesan cheese sauce. It is kind of like an alfredo sauce, but different.

I will add whatever veggies I have in the fridge to the sauce and in about 20 minutes I have a really tasty pasta dish that rivals anything you would find in an Italian restaurant.

By Mykol — On Nov 09, 2012
I don't know about anyone else, but I sure didn't care for the fat free Parmesan cheese I tried. Come to think of it, I have never cared for any of the fat free or reduced fat cheeses. There is just something lacking in the flavor of them. I would rather have the real thing and a smaller portion size than a reduced fat version.
By SarahSon — On Nov 09, 2012

I was surprised how long a wedge of fresh Parmesan cheese lasts. This kind of cheese does not spoil nearly as quickly as other kinds of cheese.

One of my favorite recipes is baked asparagus with Parmesan cheese. I have a small asparagus patch and when this is ready to eat in the spring, it is so tender and good. After baking it for a few minutes I sprinkle some fresh Parmesan cheese on top and it adds the perfect touch.

I also have a chicken Parmesan cheese recipe where I coat the chicken pieces with a mixture of cheese and eggs and bake in the oven. This adds a nice coating and flavor to the chicken.

By sunshined — On Nov 08, 2012

I didn't realize the process of making Parmesan cheese was so regimented and that it aged for 2 years. The next time a buy a wedge of this at the store, I will remember that.

I used to buy the pre-grated Parmesan cheese, but once I started buying the wedge there was no comparison. Using fresh Parmesan cheese in my recipes tastes better and is probably better for me too.

By bagley79 — On Nov 07, 2012

@anon277633 -- I just love the taste of anything cheesy and the Parmesan cheese adds that extra cheesy taste. I usually buy the pre-grated kind and sprinkle it on spaghetti, lasagna and on pizza. My grandson loves the taste of Parmesan cheese on his pizza and if we aren't watching, he will have more cheese than pizza!

By anon277633 — On Jul 01, 2012

So why do people love adding Parmesan cheese into their pasta. What is so special about Parmesan cheese? How does it help improve the taste of the pasta?

By anon264677 — On Apr 29, 2012

Can you freeze Parmesan cheese?

By anon168324 — On Apr 16, 2011

Is grated parmesan cheese defined as a processed cheese?

By anon135967 — On Dec 21, 2010

What brand of parmesan cheese doesn't have animal enzymes?

By anon65523 — On Feb 14, 2010

The rennet makes it a no-no for vegetarians. Is there an alternative?

By anon64156 — On Feb 05, 2010

you will most likely get around a 7 percent yield making parmesan cheese.

By anon63270 — On Jan 31, 2010

How do I store parmesan cheese so it won't mold?

By anon42956 — On Aug 24, 2009

I kept a nice size wedge for a year. It just gets harder to grate with time.

By anon42149 — On Aug 19, 2009

how long will a block of parmesan last?

By anon37220 — On Jul 17, 2009

what can i substitute parmesan cheese with?

By houta — On May 19, 2009

Can I know how many kilograms of milk needed to have one kilogram of parmesan cheese...

thank you

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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